ESPN brings 'touch of America' to U.S. Army Europe
November 16, 2010
<b>"I was at home, and I was watching it on T.V. We walked here. It was so bright and so energetic. It's kind of like the Macy's Day Parade for the Army."
-Charlotte Daniels, Grafenwoehr Military Community member</b>
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- The UH-60 Blackhawk flew-in, on-cue, landing just beyond the designated Warrior Challenge competition field, as guests, family members, Soldiers and civilians gathered at Grafenwoehr's Parade Field, Nov. 11, for ESPN's live-broadcast of SportsCenter, the sports network's flagship program, hosted by anchors Hannah Storm and Josh Elliot, which is broadcast to an estimated 19-million viewers.
It was a day to reflect and pay homage to America's heroes, past and present.
1st Lt. Gwynn A. Miller of the 709th Military Police Battalion opened-up the festivities with an acapela "Star-Spangled Banner," which was preceded by a hero's welcome for 12th Combat Aviation Brigade Soldiers. The Soldiers had rescued German Soldiers, members of the Parachute Battalion 373, during an April 2, fight in Afghanistan.
"All of us were very nervous about meeting the Germans again," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason J. LaCrosse, the pilot. "Once we started talking to them the nerves went away. It was awesome to meet them."
LaCrosse said when he met Master Sgt. Bonneik, the German joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) that made the call for airlift and support he felt like he was meeting a brother.
"When he called me that day, he said the LZ [landing-zone] was pretty hot," said LaCrosse. "I said to him it was cold-enough for me. He started crying on the ground because of what I said."
Both LaCrosse and Bonneik said there is a special bond between the Soldiers.
"We were in combat for five hours trying to secure the LZ," said Bonneik. "He [LaCrosse] told me he was going to land right next to the wounded. He felt safe because we defended his helicopter. That's how we managed to kill seven Taliban that tried to encircle us."
The decision was made between pilot and JTAC that the second Blackhawk would provide suppressing fire from the air, instead of the usual security for the first aircraft.
The Germans continued the fight to protect their wounded and the medics providing first response.
The wounded Soldiers said, meeting them again brought healing for their hearts and souls. They met ten members of the 14-member medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) crew that rescued them that day, during the broadcast.
Immediately following the entrance and welcome of the Soldiers, the event kicked-off with the singing of the National Anthem.
"I'm honored and very nervous," said Miller, during rehearsal. "Privileged is also one word that describes how I feel. I get a chill every time I hear the anthem."
Miller, a self-proclaimed Army brat, turned Soldier, says her mother gave her a guide for determining if she was ready to become a Soldier herself.
"My mom was a Soldier," said Miller. "She told me, Gwynn, you'll know if you want to join the Army because when you hear the anthem. You'll get a chill."
After little more than 2 years in the Army, Miller sang a heart-felt Anthem for millions.
Recognized during opening events by Brig. Gen. Steven L. Salazar were three Gold Star wives. The wives received a standing-ovation in recognition of their personal sacrifice.
"This is in behalf of all the Soldiers serving in the war currently, and those who have served in the past," said 2nd Lt. Scott S. Gorski of the 69th Signal Bn. "It's great."
Sgt. 1st Class James R. Nejelski, said the broadcast had greater significance.
"It gives the Soldiers a little touch of home. A lot of Soldiers watch SportsCenter," said Nejelski. "It gives them a little reach-back to America."
A "Warrior Challenge" competition was broadcast during the six-hour event. Six teams from all-over Europe competed for bragging rights and the ESPN trophy.
"The Warrior Challenge Course consisted of six-events, the grenade-throw, the weapons assembly and shuffle-run, the PLS tire-flip, the litter-carry, the tug-o-war, and the equipment transfer relay, these events required no specific MOS [military occupational specialty] skills, said Capt. Alan K. Cheung, planner and JMTC operations officer. "The Soldiers could compete on a level playing field. We fight as a team. We compete as a team. Every Soldier has to dig-deep, and some had to dig a little deeper, but no Soldier quits."
The Warrior Challenge competition was televised during the six-hour, live-broadcast.
The Bavarian weather wasn't a consideration. The wind and rain held-off until the final-hour of the show.
However, planners had anticipated the most-minute details to execute a flawless broadcast with additional entertainment provided by local talent, static displays, a tailgate party and fest tent that included food and fun. The ESPN event started at 3 p.m., ending at 9 p.m. (CET).
"Logistical support is usually the hardest part of planning an event of this size," said John Winslow, an operations specialist with the U.S. Army Garrison-Grafenwoehr. Seventy-five percent of the set-up was DPW [Department of Public Works] requirements."
The DPW staff are local-nationals, and there were a lot of extensive hours. They made sure it happened, said Winslow.
There were lights, cameras and action - the indicators of a major production. The Soldiers, units, family members and civilians attending were all enthusiastic, shouting, cheering and chanting.
Even the Soldiers downrange in Iraq and Afghanistan participated in the Veteran's Day extravaganza.
"We very much are a team. We are lucky we have a chance to serve our nation, while we are at war," said Col. James R. Blackburn of the 2nd Stryker Regiment, which deployed from Vilseck, Germany, this summer. Blackburn was beamed-in via satellite, live from Qalat, Afghanistan.
He spoke openly about his current deployment.
"This is something most people will never experience, and this is the most significant thing we will have the chance to do in our lifetimes," Blackburn said.
Like every duty-day the SportsCenter broadcast closed with a retreat ceremony.
Col. Vann Smiley, the U.S. Army Garrison-Grafenwoehr commander explained the military custom for the viewing audience.
All day, like every day at Grafenwoehr, the German and American flags whipped in tandem, as Storm pointed-out during the broadcast. A four-person bugle corps sounded the retreat, and the audience showed the appropriate honors and saluted as the flag came down, officially ending the live-portion of the show.
The significant of the two-flags, German and American is that as a Nation, 'we are not going it alone," said Smiley.
Immediately following, the ESPN Warrior Challenge winners, the 172nd Separate Infantry Brigade Combat Team, were given their trophy by Salazar.
The team trailing by a half-point entering the final event, the equipment transfer relay, which required them to load, then-push a HUMVEE across the finish line. The team narrowly took the lead and the competition from the 18th Combat Support Sustainment Battalion by a half-vehicle length.
The 1-4 Inf. Regiment took third place; the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment came-in fourth; the 173rd and 709th were in fifth and sixth place.
"This feels incredible, said 1st Lt. Aaron Silver, the 172nd team leader. "These men right here are the heart and soul of America. These are America's quarterbacks right here, and to win next to them means everything in the world, and all our Soldiers downrange, this is for you - our best."
Salazar congratulated the team on the stage with Josh and Hannah.
"It's been absolutely fantastic to have you here to see these great Soldiers. As I said earlier, you've got sports heroes, and you've got American heroes," Salazar said. "ESPN today has given America the chance to see both of them; our sports heroes today, but of course, our American heroes everyday. I really appreciate you giving us the chance to do that."